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I grew up with pets and I personally feel that it is important for children to have them. They help a child understand that they can’t control everything, they learn about unconditional love, how to care for something and how to be gentle with animals or there will be consequences. Now it looks as though there may be another reason to have a pet.

A new study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy shows that having a dog or cat in the home during your child’s first year of life may help prevent pet allergies later in life. The study compared children who lived with indoor cats or dogs as infants to those in animal-free homes. The children who grew up with cats were roughly half as likely to be allergic to them as teenagers. However, growing up around a dog reduced the risk of dog allergies by about the same amount for boys, but not for girls — a finding that mystified researchers.

“This research provides further evidence that experiences in the first year of life are associated with health status later in life, and that early life pet exposure does not put most children at risk of being sensitized to these animals later in life,” says researcher Ganesa Wegienka, PhD, of the department of biostatistics and research epidemiology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Will having a pet prevents allergies?
For the study, researchers looked at the association between lifetime dog and cat exposure and allergic sensitization in a group of 566 boys and girls from Detroit who were followed from birth until age 18.

They found that being exposed dogs or cats at home during the first year of life was the most important factor in the reduced risk of allergic sensitization to that specific animal later in life. Being exposed to pets any time after the first year of life appeared to have no effect on allergy risk, however, which indicates that timing may be everything when it comes to preventing allergies.

Though they can’t say for sure, the researchers suspect that early exposure to pet allergens and pet-related bacteria strengthens the immune system, accustoms the body to allergens, and helps the child build up a natural immunity.

“Dirt is good,” says lead researcher Ganesa Wegienka, Ph.D., summing up the theory. “Your immune system, if it’s busy with exposures early on, stays away from the allergic immune profile.”

This isn’t the first study to find that having a household pet may protect kids from allergies, but it is the first to follow children until they were 18 years old.

Previous studies have had mixed results — some have even linked pet exposure during infancy to an increased risk of allergy — so it’s too early to recommend getting a dog or cat just to ward off allergies in your infant, says David Nash, M.D., clinical director of allergy and  immunology at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Although the researchers took into account whether the children’s parents were allergic to animals, they didn’t ask about a broader family history of allergies or other health problems. I could be that children who are genetically predisposed to animal allergies simply are less likely to grow up in homes with pets. The jury is still out. So don’t give you pet away if you’re concerned they will provoke allergies in your child as it may be that having a pet dog or cat around the house when your baby comes home is not a bad thing after all.

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